Constructed with the same patient sorcery and elliptical menace as director Sergei Loznitsa's previous art-ordeal, My Joy, the WWII saga In the Fog opens with a tracking shot through the 1942 equivalent of a Bosch painting. For almost four minutes, Loznitsa's camera prowls after three Nazi-arrested locals as they're led to the gallows through an occupied Belorussian village, past children and weeping babushkas and relaxing Germans. It's a whole film in one bite, because Loznitsa shifts perspectives continuously, as he did in My Joy, shuffling points of view and catching details, eventually settling his sight on a cart stacked high with picked-over cow rib cages. The hanging sets the film's dominoes tumbling, and we don't even see it in the tumult.
In the Fog has a far more cohesive narrative than the previous film, which was a time-leaping provocation that would jump its own storytelling rails in the blink of a cut. Immediately we're at the door of a farmhouse with Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a steely local resistance fighter come to execute his erstwhile friend Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). Because Loznitsa does not truck with exposition, we only find out why deeper into the film: Sushenya was the fourth prisoner to be hanged, but he was freed for reasons unknown, a condition that automatically convicts him as a collaborator. A shallow grave is dug in the woods, but then a firefight breaks out with a Nazi patrol, and Sushenya, regarded as a traitor by everyone, is suddenly cornered in the forest, burdened by a mortally wounded Burov, accompanied by an unfamiliar resistance soldier who'd just as soon shoot Sushenya at any time, and surrounded by German forces, leaving the luckless everyman with nowhere to go.
Escape is never an option, and the story's despairing philosophical position — what should you do when life seems decidedly worse than death and might get even worse as guilt accumulates, suspicions spread, and bodies fall? — can be crushing. With abrupt flashbacks folding over each other at unsignaled intervals, In the Fog complicates the back story without stereotyping any of the characters, who are imprisoned by their hellish circumstances in any case. Can personal morality matter at all here? The odyssey through the Eastern Front wilderness proceeds into As I Lay Dying terrain, and Loznitsa makes sure the physical trial stays close to the ground and leaves bruises by using hard-bitten, hyperreal imagery, long takes, and, reportedly, only 72 cuts.
More accessible and less stupefying than My Joy, In the Fog has the inevitability of an avalanche, and only our overfamiliarity with Nazi-tribulation scenarios, and perhaps its excessively punctuated ending, could slow it down. A better anti-summer blockbuster is hard to imagine.